The basic recipe for krupnikas was supposedly invented in the 16th century by the Benedictine monks of a monastery in what is now Belarus. It may have originally been their affordable, home-brewed alternative to imported wine and mead, but it quickly became wildly popular among the local nobility. From there, the recipe spread to Poland, and now lives on in hundreds of iterations—hundreds of secret family recipes—made in kitchens across Lithuania, Poland, and Belarus.
Making krupnikas doesn’t require any actual distilling, just a pot and a stove. First, boil down a mixture of honey, water, and wintery spices, then add a high-proof, flavorless grain spirit or vodka. The result, after it’s been strained and bottled, is what one might describe as mulled vodka, but its flavor tastes much better than it sounds. Think honey—pure, real honey—and comforting spices. It’s around 80 proof, and makes a good cold weather drink that Lithuanians sip straight, and sometimes warm, throughout the fall and winter.
It's what one might describe as mulled vodka, but its flavor tastes much better than it sounds.
This sort of stovetop krupnikas is made in plenty of American kitchens too, mostly ones inhabited by Lithuanian transplants and their offspring. And it’s from some of these kitchens that the small world of commercial krupnikas production in the U.S has sprung. The first to do it was Rim Vilgalys, who launched The Brothers Vilgalys Spirits Company in Durham, North Carolina in 2013 (the other Vilgalys brother took a job in New Zealand before the launch, and was replaced by different partners). The krupnikas Vilgalys makes is based on an old Lithuanian formula that he inherited, like most Lithuanians do, from his parents. His father, whose own father emigrated from Lithuania after World War II, unearthed an old krupnikas recipe and started making it on special occasions.
When Vilgalys went to college, he carried on the habit. "It got me invited to a lot of parties," he says, "and eventually it was very much part of my reputation. I’d be introduced as ‘that guy who makes the honey liqueur.’" If all these college kids loved it, Vilgalys figured, selling krupnikas could be good business. So he moved home to Durham, took a business class, tinkered with the recipe, rented a building, and started doing just that.
It says something about krupnikas that Vilgalys’s story is nearly identical to the one told by most of the four other krupnik or krupnikas producers who have sprung up around the country in the years since Brothers Vilgalys launched. At Dirty Water Distillery in Plymouth, Massachusetts, co-owner Pepi Avizonis creates krupnikas the same way his grandfather did when he immigrated here from Lithuania after the war. "I started making it when I was 14," Avizonis says, "and I’ve been making it ever since." Seeing how much friends liked it in his hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Avizonis knew that if he made it at Dirty Water (which now also distills rum, gin, and vodka), his krupnikas would sell well.
Similarly, Kas and Marushka Katinas, the couple behind KAS Krupnikas of Mahopac, New York, use a recipe passed down from Kas’ Lithuanian mother. Over in Portland, Oregon, Vince Radostitz makes JVR Spirits Krupnik based on a recipe his father used to boil up in the garage. Uniquely, his father was neither Polish nor Lithuanian, but was a member of a Lithuanian dance troupe, where he discovered krupnik. Only Djinn Spirits, of Nashua, New Hampshire, has no family recipe behind their krupnikas. Owners Andy and Cindy Harthcock learned of krupnik from a Polish friend only after they had opened their distillery, and liked it so much they decided to fashion their own.
Just as they would at home, every American krupnikas producer makes the spirit a little differently. Djinn Spirits distills its own grain alcohol base (which also goes into their gin), while JVR Spirits sources its base from Portland’s New Deal Distillery (out of which JVR Spirits operates). But the rest aren’t distilleries in the traditional sense. They make krupnikas the way their families did, buying spirits by the barrel from bigger producers, and adding a carefully balanced blend of honey and spice. It just wouldn’t be efficient, or affordable enough, for their tiny operations to produce everything from scratch; mixing up a 50 or 100 gallon batch is work enough.
Just as they would at home, every American krupnikas producer makes the spirit a little differently.
At Dirty Water Distilling, Avizonis starts by redistilling the base spirit he’s bought, to evaporate off some of its more volatile compounds. This makes for a smoother liquor, he explains, free of that "firebreathing thing" you get from cheap vodkas. Djinn Spirits, meanwhile, takes the non-traditional approach of aging its krupnik in whiskey barrels for a month, which Andy Harthcock says "calms the spirits down and rounds everything out." Others let their krupnikas settle, usually in glass carboys, for anywhere from a few days to a month, mostly to let any solids sink to the bottom.
The real heart of any krupnikas recipe is the honey and the spices. The former, everyone agrees, is best when it’s local and from wildflowers. Commercial honey from a big distributor would be cheaper, and vary less in color, but all the American krupnikas-makers think it’s too flavorless. Spices, meanwhile, are what make one krupnikas different from the next. A few are standard: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, vanilla, orange, and lemon peel. Many producers also use fresh ginger, caraway, cardamom, and even saffron. But the full list for some of these recipes can run so long that even the maker has trouble remembering every ingredient.
So, no two recipes are alike, and anyone familiar with krupnikas will be quick to spot the difference. Both Avizonis and Katinas, for example, made a point of noting that the Brothers Vilgalys’s recipe includes peppercorns, which theirs does not. (In the world of American krupnikas makers, everyone knows—and supports—what everyone else is doing. Katinas, in fact, even grew up with Vilgalys’s father.) For that reason, none of the American producers put much stock in marketing their krupnikas to Lithuanians. As Avizonis explains, "I intentionally don’t try to sell to Lithuanians because they all have their own personal memory of what krupnikas should be." Lithuanians also, as Vilgalys points out, usually "get it from someone already."
Instead, America’s krupnikas makers focus on selling their liqueur to those who’ve never heard of it. Granted, not one of these tiny distilleries has emerged from its infancy yet, nor is any brand of krupnikas available in more than two or three states at most. Both Djinn Spirits and Dirty Water Distilling say it’s their number one seller, more in demand than any of their vodkas, gins, rums, or whiskeys. And KAS Krupnikas was named one of Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 spirits in 2015.
With all the new customers, krupnikas is finding new uses. It’s super sweet, and not everyone wants to drink it straight like the Lithuanians do, but luckily it makes a good mixer. Bob Peters, currently the mixologist at the Punch Room, a popular cocktail lounge in Charlotte, North Carolina’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, regularly uses the Brothers Vilgalys krupnikas in drinks on his menu to "add depth and sweetness at the same time. You usually get one or the other," he explains, "but rarely both." Used as a sweetener, the krupnikas also adds unique flavor, and pairs well with bourbon and tequila. His favorite drinks to make with it include a variation on a Manhattan where tequila replaces the bourbon and krupnikas replaces the vermouth, and a drink called the Honey Franciulli, which involves bourbon, Fernet-Branca, vermouth, and krupnikas.
When using krupnikas, Peters, like most bartenders, leans toward heavier, colder weather cocktails, since the spices tend to evoke winter. One challenge for many of these krupnikas makers is to market their beverage in the warmer months, when its flavor seems out of place. But when mixed with the right things, it’s the spring-like honey flavor of the krupnikas that shines through more than the spices.
So, with a little creativity, the possibilities for krupnikas are endless. And its makers, despite their roots in tradition, are embracing experimentation wholeheartedly. Yes, their recipes are traditional, but their success doesn’t hinge on introducing a new product to the world, it hinges on introducing an old product to new people. If things go their way, krupnikas could end up in a new chapter of its long existence, living on as many bar shelves as in pots on the stove.